Defensive struggles early: Grizzlies have to pick themselves up

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Even with a new head coach implementing a new offense, the Grizzlies' worst struggles have come on the defensive end. While they were elite last season, simple mistakes have plagued them so far.

When you think Grizzlies, you think "defense." You think of a team that hustles and plays with heart while limiting the opposing team to 80 points on a good night in front of an adoring home crowd. Guys like Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Tony Allen resemble this team's defensive identity pretty well.

Well, their defensive identity of last year, anyway. Through the first few games of the young 2013-14 season, things just haven't been the same. While the Grizz were right up there in the highest tier of defenses last season, they've been slipping early in this one.

Stats (as of November 7th) '12-13 season '12-13 rank '13-14 season '13-14 rank
Defensive rating (points allowed per 100 poss.) 100.3 2nd 107.5 25th
Opponent field goal percentage 43.5% 3rd 47.1% 22nd
Opponent three-point percentage 33.8% 2nd 38.7% 23th

It's been quite a fall from grace for the Grizzlies. So far this season, they've allowed both the Pistons and the Mavericks to score 111 points (the Pistons doing so in overtime). The Celtics (the Celtics!) shot 47.1% from the field against them and the Pelicans shot 48.7%, including a 14-20 (70.0%) first quarter. Maybe the most embarrassing stat is the ridiculous 46 free-throw attempts given up to the Mavericks, a number the Grizzlies haven't allowed since January 24, 2006.

It's kind of surprising that, of all things, defense would be one of the main issues. After closing the preseason with back-to-back losses in which they scored 72 and 73 points, one would've thought that would be the issue. And yet, the Grizzlies' regression on defense stands in contrast to an offense that has ranked just above league average this season (102.4 Offensive Rating, 14th in the NBA).

New head coach Dave Joerger might seem a good target for blame, but he really hasn't implemented much change in the defensive scheme of last season. After all, he's been in charge of the Grizzlies' defense since 2011, when Lionel Hollins made him the team's lead assistant coach and defensive coordinator. It's hard to imagine he would tinker with his defense much as the head coach, especially when it's been so successful in recent years.

Predictably, the players haven't deviated from Joerger's pack-the-paint/overload-the-strong-side scheme much. It's the execution of the scheme that has looked sloppy so far. Guys are being caught out of position, rotations are being missed and some players aren't defending as well as they can in 1-on-1 situations.

It doesn't make much sense that players experienced in the system would suddenly start to make mistakes, but for whatever reason, it's happening. Take a look at this video, as Mike Conley blows the recovery to his man on the weak side corner, and nobody realizes in time to pick up his slack. It's surprising because Conley is normally one of the NBA's best at closing out on his check on the weak side, but he completely lost Jose Calderon here.

Here, despite having all five players right in the paint as the scheme is designed, nobody gets on Avery Bradley as he cuts into the paint and gets an easy shot off. This one is almost unexplainable because for whatever reason, all eyes are locked on to Gerald Wallace posting up Mike Miller. For this scheme to be successful, it's vital that players can track off-ball movement as well as what's happening on the ball so that teams can't take advantage of how far the defense retreats into the paint. Somebody – Jerryd Bayless, Quincy Pondexter, Zach Randolph – has to recognize Bradley's cut and do something to stop it.

It's these type of mistakes that are killing the Grizzlies. Small holes in defensive execution are leading to easy baskets consistently for opposing teams. It's especially disappointing to see guys who excelled in this scheme last season a step behind the opposition this season.

Probably what's been killing the Grizzlies the most, however, has been their pick-and-roll defense. It was arguably their largest flaw on defense last season, but it's suddenly emerged as one of their largest flaws overall. The main difference – while containing the ball-handler was the issue for them last season, they can't even put a body on the roll man this season. Watch this pick-and-roll from last season, then compare it to the pick-and-rolls below from this season.

In these two, nobody is there in time to stop Shawn Marion and Samuel Dalembert rolling to the rim for an unchallenged layup and dunk – in the case of Marion, nobody's there at all. Both plays are on Marc Gasol for not being in better position to stifle the roll man, as the Grizzlies need help defense behind them if they want to trap the ball-handler up top. Gasol is normally great in that role, but certainly not in these two plays.

Here, the Grizzlies lose Jared Sullinger completely on the pick-and-pop. Once again, they try to trap the ball-handler up top, but there's no rotation behind them to account for the screener. Zach Randolph needs to get to Sullinger in this play, and Jerryd Bayless had already tagged up on Kelly Olynyk to allow him to do so. (Worth adding that the first pick-and-roll in this play was defended perfectly, with perfect trapping and rotations.)

And of course, Monta Ellis pulls up after the Dirk pick because Zach Randolph is playing too loosely on him. Do you know who has it all?

The Grizzlies are still trapping on many of their pick-and-rolls, which worked excellently for them last season. However, the help defender, who is supposed to rotate to account for the roll man, is the missing link this season. In the pick-and-roll clip from last season, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen got on Kenneth Faried right away to force him to adjust his layup. This season, guys are free after setting picks for wide open shots at the rim.

The team's inability to contain pick-and-rolls also fed into the 46 free throws the Mavericks got to attempt. Because of all of the open opportunities the Mavs were getting at the rim off of pick-and-rolls, there were situations where guys just had to foul to prevent the easy shot. The scary thing was just how often it happened.

As if that wasn't enough, it also feels like effort is a missing component at times. It almost seems impossible that the Grit-and-Grind Grizzlies are suffering from a lack of effort, and yet, we have plays like this where Jeff Green can score coast-to-coast nonchalantly off of an inbound.

Imagining the number of fast break scores resulted from the Grizzlies simply not running back hard enough is almost kind of scary. It sure felt like Dallas scored an awful lot of transition threes. For what it's worth, they've given up 19.0 fast break points per game according to Team Rankings, putting them 27th in the NBA in this early season. The learning curve they're going through on offense feeds into this too, because of all the turnovers (17.8 per game, 20th in the NBA) they're throwing away.

Probably most disappointing is Marc Gasol's play. He's looked damn near lifeless on the court at times. There's some speculation that playing in the Eurobasket competition during the offseason wore him out, which wouldn't be surprising. Whatever the reason, Gasol isn't anchoring our defense the way he did last season. He's been caught out of position a lot more than usual (shown earlier), and he isn't challenging shots or trapping on pick-and-rolls well either. His slow start has had a huge effect on the Grizzlies' struggles as a whole.

Even with that said, the reason for the Grizzlies' suddenly poor defensive performance isn't something that can't be pinned down on any one reason. Adjusting to a new offense with a higher pace or simply shaking the early cobwebs off might play a part. Whatever the reason, the flaws are showing on defense.

On the bright side, there's no reason to think that we can't revert to last season's form. These are all problems that can be ironed out with time, and it helps that this scheme has been successful before with a very similar roster. The issue isn't that players on the team don't understand the scheme or aren't a good fit for it, but just that mental lapses are occurring and wrinkles need to be worked out. It's something that an underperforming team can correct on its own.

As the team further adapts to the higher pace and offense under Joerger, turnovers should drop. The little things in its half-court scheme will probably come around as the team recognizes and acts on it. The effort level will go up. For a team that was so good defensively a season ago, it's very likely that this is just a temporary issue and that they can bounce back. The hope is that it's not a matter of if they bounce back, but when they bounce back.

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